Going the Distance

Houston's John Kelley has pursued his dream of bringing the Olympics to Houston for years, despite all odds. Now he's official.

Putting on the Olympic Games is a huge proposition for any city. Boosters here, such as they are, brag that Houston already has most of the facilities necessary for hosting the event. Throw in a (multimillion-dollar) aquatic center and some practice facilities, and the city is ready, willing and able to handle anything the Olympics might need, supporters say.

But beyond the obvious drawbacks (horrendous traffic, years of fawning, anticipatory local press coverage), hosting the Olympics would dominate thinking and planning in the city and county bureaucracy for years and years, essentially forcing any major proposed expenditure to prove that it somehow benefited the Olympic effort.

Mayor Lee Brown and Harris County Judge Robert Eckels have endorsed the effort to seek the Olympics, but there are indications that corporate Houston isn't overly enamored of the idea.

When supporters of the downtown baseball stadium looked to business leaders in 1997 to donate their time -- and up to $40 million or so in cash -- the eager recruits included such local giants as Enron, Shell, Southwestern Bell and Compaq Computers.

But when city officials named their "blue-ribbon" Olympic-bid committee in June, they proclaimed that the effort would be led by ... car salesman George DeMontrond. The committee also featured a couple of former gold medalists, Retton and Carl Lewis, and, as a Houston Chronicle story noted, "para-Olympic athlete Mario Rodriguez, investment banker Gilbert Herrera, HISD employee Rose Haggerty and Aldine ISD employee Patty O'Rourke."

The city of Houston had pledged $1.5 million over three years on the project, which private industry was expected to match. You'd have to listen hard to hear Washington/Baltimore shaking in its boots, not to mention such competitors as Seattle, Boston, New York, San Francisco and Tampa Bay/Orlando.

But none of that matters to John Kelley. He has been working for nine years on getting the Olympics here, and he's not about to let a little thing like local corporate apathy slow him down.

For one thing, he's sure the bigshots will come around when they sense they've got a winner to back. For another, he's got his own way of doing things. Slowly, methodically, he's working his dream from the bottom up.

That includes scrambling around to put on events such as the Pan American gymnastic event. Perhaps 20 countries in the hemisphere sent youth teams in July to compete. On a Monday morning of the first day of the event, the spinning, bouncing and vaulting athletes in the HISD's Coleman Community Coliseum outnumbered spectators.

Although girls from Guatemala, Ecuador and Venezuela wore their colorful national uniforms, and were doing the kind of things gymnasts do while the world watches every four years, the feeling in the empty gym was decidedly un-Olympian.

Kelley wasn't fazed, of course. Armed with a cell phone and a decidedly serious attitude, he was ready to leap into action as soon as some problem cropped up, like maybe a bad batch of oranges or a break in the Minute Maid negotiations.

And, just as characteristically, he was optimistic that things would get better. "These are just the preliminaries," he said. "You don't get much of a crowd, but we've sold a lot of tickets for this weekend."

More important than that, he said, were the long-term benefits of successfully holding the competition. Treat the participants royally, he says (a definition of "royally" that apparently includes dining at Luby's), and the coach of, say, the Paraguayan team will go home and rave about Houston.

And, of course, you trot out Mary Lou. Now the 30-year-old wife of Kelley's son Shannon (a former University of Texas quarterback), Retton has lost none of her perkiness. And Kelley has shown no hesitancy about using that semi-star-power as often as he can.

She wowed the young gymnasts at the gymnastics meet, naturally, posing happily for pictures and chatting easily with the athletes who crowded around her.

"Twenty countries here will be saying that Houston put on a good show, that they had good food, the hotel was fine, there was good bottled water and good transportation," he explained. "And that'll bode well with the voters. The coaches will go back, and they'll talk to their bosses on the athletic councils, and they'll talk to the voters."

The voters. That's what's key for Kelley, who's working the Olympics as if he were a delegate hunter at a political convention with an undecided race.

One by one, it seems, he's putting the personal touch on every international athletic official he can.

"I'm personable, and I like to meet and to know people," he says. "These officials and coaches will come into town for an event or something, and I'll take them out to dinner, and we'll talk about the kids, and the family, and, you know, they'll usually ask something about Mary Lou [Retton]. They all want to know about the facilities we have here for their specific sport, but usually I let them bring it up, so they don't feel like it's a hard sell. Then I'll have had all the information ready and at my fingertips, and I'm able to show them all we have here."

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